HELENA — About $25,000 will be returned to the Smith River Corridor Enhancement Account after a protest over the use of the money by Trout Unlimited, and the nonprofit group also wants to continue discussions on another $82,000 it believes was improperly applied to projects.
In a letter sent in October to Jeff Hagener, director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Pat Barnes Missouri River Chapter of Trout Unlimited expressed “deep concern with what we believe is the misuse” of $107,301 from the account.
In particular, the chapter was concerned over the use of $43,390 for a maintenance/storage building; $8,850 for road maintenance; $3,430 for recycling containers; and $51,631 for replacement latrines and a park kiosk installation.
“With this in mind, we are both disappointed and frustrated by this misuse of funds from the CEA,” Garrett Fawaz, the chapter’s president, wrote in the letter. “Adding to the frustration was that we were not even informed of any of these projects but instead learned of these developments second hand. We have always been great partners with the department; that’s why this is a surprise and kind of caught us off guard.
“We don’t believe the expenditures meet the letter of the law or its intent.
“The focus of the law is for conservation, restoration and protection, not for storage or equipment or recycling,” Fawaz said, adding that the Parks Department already has a maintenance budget and the money for these four projects should have come from that.
Fawaz also notes in the letter that they have seen various fisheries-related projects on the Smith River be proposed by the Great Falls staff, then languish either in the regional or the Helena offices and go unfunded or unfinished. Those include two projects for channel maintenance, bank stabilization and riparian fencing totaling $38,000 that are listed as “pending.”
In a response sent to Fawaz this week, Hagener said that there are different interpretations about what expenditures are allowed under the law cited in the Trout Unlimited letter.
Under MCA 23-2-409, money collected as recreational and commercial user fees for floating on the Smith River must be used to “protect and enhance the integrity of the natural and scenic beauty of the Smith waterway and its recreational, fisheries and wildlife values through the lease or acquisition of property.”
The money also can be used to pursue projects that serve to protect, enhance and restore the fisheries habitat, stream bank stabilization and erosion control on the Smith and its tributaries. A third purpose is to pursue projects that maintain and enhance instream flows.
Hagener said under their reading of the legislation and its historic uses, FWP isn’t prohibited from paying for the projects that concerned the group. He added that significant capital funds — $328,952 — from the Parks Department also have been expended on other infrastructure over the past several years.
“Well-maintained roads are important in allowing good access to the river,” Hagener wrote. “Good sanitary facilities are a must to deal with human wastes. A maintenance/storage building is necessary to store and protect (Parks and Fisheries) equipment from the elements and theft.”
However, Hagener also conceded that “it is a stretch to say that the recycling containers were necessary to enhance and protect the corridor,” and he directed the Parks Department to reimburse the Smith River account for the cost of the recycling containers and half of the cost of the maintenance/storage building.
Jen Lawson, a spokesperson for the Parks Department, said she believes the building reimbursement was a good faith effort on the agency’s part.
Hagener also notes in his letter that no conservation-oriented project has ever been denied, and Lawson said the two projects listed as “pending” were approved and funded in 2012 by the Parks Department, but the fisheries division of FWP is still working out details with the landowners.
“There are pieces that go into these projects that take time, so pending isn’t really the correct wording,” Lawson said. “Fisheries is doing a great job, but it just takes time.”
Still, Trout Unlimited would like to discuss those and other pending or postponed projects with FWP.
“We are aware of projects that were submitted to Region 4 and … never got to the director’s level,” Fawaz said. “That’s something that at an advisory level we could help out with as projects are presented, so they get some visibility and aren’t stuck in somebody’s in-box.”
He noted that Trout Unlimited and the 450 members in the Pat Barnes chapter have a positive relationship with FWP and often are able to help the state agency by obtaining matching funds that might not be available to FWP, as well as volunteer hours.
Fawaz said his organization appreciates Hagener’s response, adding that it’s a good start for future conversations over management of the Smith River, which is one of the most popular float trips in Montana. Last year, about 6,662 people applied for a coveted permit to float the river, and about one-sixth of the applicants — 1,062 — was successful.
“I think his letter was a fair response and gives us a good position to start discussions,” Fawaz said. “I’m glad to see he agreed to reimburse some of the costs. It’s a great start, but we’re still interested in talking to him about the other items.”